The State of Commercial Air Travel: Paying extra to not be hassled.

airline travel technology seatbelt light somegadgetguyI’m not telling anyone anything they don’t already know. I wont be surprising anyone with this editorial. We’re all aware. The current state of commercial air travel for the most part is pretty miserable. The last several trips I’ve taken, I’ve been struck by how bad the experience has become. It’s been difficult. There are certain institutions we look to, things we expect will remain in operation forever, yet they’ve been degrading so rapidly I don’t know how they’ll be around by the time I have grand kids (movie theaters are another such institution, but I digress).

The most recent flight I took was a comedy of errors, and the saddest aspect of the story happens to be that everything went completely according to plan. The flight went exactly right.

See, I’m still at that age where, though I’m traveling more, I still have to be somewhat frugal about how my trips are planned. I rarely get to splurge on nicer accommodations, and I’m young enough still that I don’t quite see the cost benefit. Most of the time though, it really will come down between flying “poor” or not going at all. That’s not really a choice if you know what I mean.

The frustration of doing this often comes down to the fact that I don’t see much benefit to paying more, but spend less and you’re punished. Let me rephrase: You don’t get better service for spending more, you just get hassled less.

Take checking in for example. It’s the year 2013. We’re many of us used to checking in online. When this benefit was first introduced it was a great upgrade to the process of getting through airport security. It improved the airport experience. It hasn’t evolved much since it was introduced. Now, if you belong to an airline’s club, or pay a small fee you can be automatically checked in for your flight. Great! I want you to think about that for a second though. It’s possible for a system to automatically check you in, but if you fly poor, you can’t have access to it. You have to be inconvenienced so someone else can feel privileged, so they can feel like they’re getting their money’s worth. That’s not service.

Also the notion of boarding in groups. It started out as some kind of airline meritocracy. It rewarded the people who checked in first with being able to board sooner. When used in conjunction with assigned seating though it creates a terrific mess of people trying to board a plane. If you fly poor, you can always count on a line of people slowly shambling along trying to find any overhead space. And why? Most airlines know where you’re going to sit.

airline travel technology airplane cabin  somegadgetguyThis has evolved into each airline having a series of “tiers”, specialty programs, and “classes” within each program. Boarding my last flight I counted five. Five “Premium”, “Platinum”, “Express”, “Specialty”, “Select” programs allowing passengers to board “ahead” of the rest of general boarding. This is not counting people with children and active duty military. I’m not entirely sure any of those groups properly included First Class passengers either.

So if you threw in your cash, and paid for the lowest tier of specialty boarding, half the plane who spent more would still have boarded before you. Dd you get good service for that fee? Did you get your money’s worth? I surmise that you did not, but that you still feel good about it because hey, at least you’re not like those bums boarding behind you.

This brings me back to automatic check in. It’s the final tiny insult for those of us flying steerage. 24 hours before our flights we log in to our computers to check in the instant we’re able in hopes that we can lock in a good boarding group. That we’ll have access to some small piece of overhead luggage space and not have to check our bag. I locked in the fastest possible check in I could, literally seconds after the minute changed over, and still was pushed to “Group 2”. That’s right, first class, children and military, five groups of paid “Express” boarding, “Group 1”, people who volunteered to check a bag at the gate, then me. Three quarters of the plane boarded before I could step foot on the plane. Why bother with this pretense anymore?

Airlines know I didn’t pay to be in a special group or to belong to their awesome clubs. For an early morning flight, why make me also wake up the morning before to scramble for a better check in group. Just assign me the “poor person” group and let me sleep in. At least let me have that small dignity, free of any of that pesky “hope” nonsense that I might actually be able to board a plane in a timely fashion. Free of the illusion that I might be able to fly without having to check my bag on the gangway because the overheads are full of enormous suitcases which couldn’t hope to fit in the handy little measuring displays found at each gate. You could let me have that. Instead it’s more important to make sure other people feel like they’re getting better service just by making them pay extra for the bare minimum.

airline travel technology airplane air vent conditioner flight attendant button  somegadgetguyThe rest of the flying experience is equally fraught with gouging and fees designed to help improve the look of a financial sheet. Numbers of people belonging to airline clubs must look like loyal customers, when in reality I think more and more practical flyers are just hunting the best deals they can within reason. Actual customer loyalty is at an all time low as most people simply cope with this notion of denied service.

I think the most frustrating aspect of this is that I happen to be a capitalist, and this just reeks of bad business. The studies done on cost savings for airlines point to things like streamlining the boarding process. Getting people on and off a plane more efficiently could save an airline millions in operations costs per year. Get people on and off a plane easily, and you’ll have real loyal customers. The experience actually improves. It’s not airport theatre, it is actually better. People pay for that. You can advertise that. You don’t have to make up a Platinum Express Specialty Select group, instead everyone benefits. It’s a quantifiable improvement which will look better on the bottom line expenses. Your company has less overhead, more customers, and makes more money. Everyone’s happier from the poorest flyers to the company shareholders.

Unfortunately those kinds of improvements just don’t have the panache. It’s just not sexy. Fees are sexy. That’s an “upsell”. They got someone to spend money, then spend more money for an “upgrade”. They got us, gouged us, and we still did business them. Saving money just doesn’t seem as attractive…

See, Capitalism works!

And, we’ll all just keep watching it work while the whole industry unravels around us.